“WHERE AM I?!” Strohecker asked, barely able to reel in his wandering senses as his eyes tried desperately to focus. Just as what happened to Becton, Strohecker was simply going about his daily morning routine when a hard thump to the back of his head sent everything into darkness. Coming to several hours later, he found the stale air of the overcrowded city had been replaced by a strong wind that seemed to come from every direction. “What happened?! Who’s there?!”
Eyesight finally focusing back to normal, Strohecker quickly looked to his left, then his right. To his dismay, he saw two burly, bearded men standing tall on either side of him like angry totem poles. Continuing to survey his new surroundings, he could see the sparkling lip of a sandy beach not far off in the near distance. Miles of clear turquoise water surrounded him, swallowing the entire landscape in its depthless wonder. The sky above, a vibrant blanket of clean blue marble, had only a few wisps of thin stratus clouds floating across its impeccable surface. Just past the fine line of sandy beachfront was all the greenery of the secluded land.
Seeing this radical change in landscape finally cleared the fog from Strohecker’s head. All at once, he realized that he was on a boat. That’s when the panic started to set in. Strohecker tried to move his hands and feet but found them to be bound to the rickety wooden chair he sat in.
“I’m warning you, Strohecker, you’re really going to want to save your strength,” Francis reiterated as Strohecker struggled loudly against the tight ropes that held him firmly in place to his chair.
Stomping down his urge to scream and thrash about, Strohecker forced himself to regain composure and asked, “You’re that psychotic rogue agent, aren’t you? I’ve heard lots of rumors about you over the last couple of days.”
“Ah, yes. I’m sure you have. I noticed that gossip travels fast through these parts,” Francis said with a big toothy grin plastered to his clean-shaven face. “Not fast enough for you to heed the warning and get the heck out of Dodge, though. Now, I can see that you’re more than a little confused right now. Understandably so. Please, allow me a minute to get you up to speed here. My name’s Agent Laurent, although I can’t really say that I am pleased to meet you.”
“Wasn’t that long ago,” Francis continued speaking, eyes looking out over the bubbling foam of the crashing waves against the boat’s hull below, “that you had a hand in killing three security guards and a BOI agent during an armored truck heist. That deadly association brought you here, to beautiful Oak Mountain Lake. This prestigious vessel belongs to a Ms. Jenny, who was gracious enough to lend it to us for a leisurely ride around the lake.”
Turning to the two burly men who stood silently beside Strohecker, he added, “Oh, and these two strapping young lads are her two boys—Ralph Gates and his brother Roy.”
“Forgive me if I don’t stand up to shake your hands,” Strohecker said sarcastically to the two stoic brothers, trying to find a small slice of humor in the hanging tension. “How the hell did I get here?”
“I’m glad you ask,” Francis pleasantly said as he turned back to the surging water. “These boys picked you up this morning on your way into the city, remember? I suspect you might not, they kicked your ass pretty good.” Strohecker already knew this much, his head and ribs still deeply bruised and aching with every subtle movement. “What’s important is that, you’re here now. And it’s time for you to pay for your crimes.” Sensing Strohecker’s lingering confusion, Francis pointed over to a heavy wooden crate that lay open just a few feet away. “You ever read about Harry Houdini in the papers?”
A look of extreme terror crossed Strohecker’s face as his eyes darted franticly from the resting crate to the smiling Agent Laurent.
Filling his lungs with fresh air to steady his wandering thoughts, Francis let out a hefty sigh and turned to the still confused Strohecker. “Strohecker, Mr. Houdini was placed in a box in manacles and tossed in the East River in New York in 1912. He escaped in 57 seconds. Up for the challenge?”
“No! And I don’t care, either!” Strohecker screamed defiantly, clearly fed up with all the minor chitchat and illusion. “You and these two stupid hicks are stark raving mad! I work for Nick Bradford—NICK BRADFORD! Do you know what he’ll do once he finds out what you jackasses have done to one of his own guys?! He’ll kill all three of you idiots and sink your corpses to the bottom of this goddamn lake!”
Strohecker paused his angered rant for a moment, forced himself to take a deep breath, and decided to try a different approach, implementing the tactic of reverse psychology with his captors instead. “Look, let me out of these straps right now, and we can forget this whole thing ever happened. One hand wipes the other, capeesh?” he said, a tinge of arrogance still tainting every syllable of his impassioned bargain for freedom.
“I hear your request,” Francis said thoughtfully, “but, sadly, it’s been denied.” He stared coldly across the deck at Strohecker for a moment, his hard face completely absents of emotion. “Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he continued. “As punishment for the heinous crimes you have committed, you will be taken from that chair and placed inside that crate. My charming associates will then nail and rope the crate shut, in a perfect imitation of Mr. Houdini’s trick. Then you’ll go in the drink for a nice little swim..” Francis chuckled lightly at the thought, then abruptly paused, his amused expression changing to one of extreme focus and dire purpose.
“You’re a BOI agent, and you’re going to kill me? Yeah, right!” Strohecker blustered, rolling his eyes dramatically. “You can’t fool me, pig. You’ve sworn to uphold an oath to serve and protect! You ain’t gonna hurt nobody!” Strohecker shouts, face beaming with prideful spite for Agent Laurent’s moral limitations. “So, get these two hillbillies to cut me loose and drive this thing back to shore! Now!” Strohecker thought he was going to call their bluff but was shocked by what happened next.
In perfect unison, Francis and the two brothers burst into deep gutted laughter at his command. When Francis finally stopped, he said, “You really are crazy, Strohecker. I see why Bradford chose you to be one of his top cronies. Good choice, Bradford. Touché.”
Strohecker gawked up at the rogue agent, face full of brimming malice. “Go to Hell, Laurent!”
“You first!” Francis shot back, eyes reflecting the same harsh flicker of sour discontent. Realizing that shouting back and forth like doddering old fools was pointless, Francis took a step back from Strohecker and smoothed out his tie. “Alright. Alright. All this bickering is getting us nowhere. Enough name-calling, Strohecker.” Leaning forward with a menacing smile stitched across his face, Francis leered for a moment over Strohecker as he trembled in his chair. “Boys, cut ‘em loose. Our friend here has a swimming lesson to attend to.”